The Corn Exposition - 1913, Catawba Native Americans


Photo of Catawba's at the expositon

A small number of Catawba Indian families benefit economically from the so-called Indian show circuit. Some are active enough to be called professional Indians. These Catawbas make a living by attending powwows, historical events and folk art shows. A few merely sell pottery and other Catawba crafts such as blow guns, cane flutes, wooden whistles and walking sticks. Others offer pan-Indian crafts such as bead work and dream catchers. Two contemporary families provide a full cultural service including pottery demonstrations, singing and dancing, and an occasional history lecture. This business has been a part of the Catawba Indian cultural landscape for about a century. Not the first of such events but probably one of the best documented was the Corn Exposition held in Columbia, South Carolina, in January 1913. Catawba participation was sponsored by the Rock Hill Chamber of Commerce. The Indian booth was situated next to an Indian relic display mounted by Winthrop College.  The Evening Herald, The Record, and The State newspapers made every effort to provide full coverage and dramatize the Catawba departure and Expo program. The first day the party traveled to Rock Hill and the next day, January 27, they departed by train for Columbia. The paper provided a short description of the delegation which included six men, two women and six children, all gaily dressed in Indian garb. The men wore grand feather headdresses. Each man had a Rock Hill pennant suspended down his back. Their arrival at the Exposition grounds was celebrated with fanfare. Two of the men participated in a parade down Main Street in Columbia.

The coverage provided for the next week is rich in detail. For instance, the Indians erected a dwelling. The press called it a wigwam. We don't know if it was a culturally accurate brush arbor or a canvas tent. The late Doris Blue, who was one of the six children, remembered sleeping in a military barrack style building. On January 28, the Indians began to demonstrate pottery making before large crowds filled with curiosity. The potters sold all their wares almost immediately. The women also baked corn bread, probably Catawba Ashe Bread. The women also joined the men in afternoon demonstrations of Catawba dance.

It is interesting to note that the Corn Exposition was the last documented occasion when the Catawba women danced with turtle shell rattles tied to their ankles. The State newspaper found these of particular interest and reported, "The latter [turtle rattle] is a queer instrument worn by the Catawba maidens in the dance. It was worn on the leg beneath the skirts and produced a weird noise." Such rattles were and still are worn universally across the Southeast by Indians who participate in the so-called Southern Cult and its all-important Stomp Dances. Such leg rattles are necessary to the Stomp Dance, a dance style which is currently being revived by the Catawba. The men danced, chanted, drummed and shook cow horn rattles filled with buckshot.

The group was led by Robert Lee Harris who had traveled with the Daniel Boone Troupe. He was spoken of as a potter of unusual talent. Under Harris's lead, the Indians danced the graceful and yet highly dramatic Wild Goose Dance, one of the most popular dances at the Yap Ye Iswa Festival celebrated on the reservation the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They also danced the wildly vibrant Bear Dance. This dance was discontinued in the 1920s and today is being revived by Monty and Anna Branham. Monty has written a new Bear Dance Song in Catawba. A small but growing number of Catawba Indians know how to perform this ancient show stopper of a Catawba dance.

Unfortunately two dances performed at the Corn Exposition are no longer danced by the Catawba and their patterns have been lost. The first was the Fox Chase Dance organized by a man called Standing Bull. It was probably learned by Robert Lee Harris during his Daniel Boone Troupe days and was not traditionally Catawba. The second was the Catawba War Dance organized by Robert Lee Harris.  

The news coverage of the Catawba participation in the Corn Exposition is filled with superlatives. One article The Record newspaper was entitled, "The Catawba Are Star Number." So successful was the Exposition in general that it was extended for an additional week. Photographer Blanchard recorded the event in photos and one is reproduced here. Of the 22 Catawba Indians who took part in the Corn Exposition, only seven can be identified with any certainty today:  Robert Lee Harris, John Brown, Rachel Brown, Rosie Harris Wheelock, Doris Wheelock, Edna Wheelock, and Richard Harris.

Story contributed by - Tom Blumer

Back to: York County, SC, Catawba Native Americans